The whole world for $30

Plus, the latest on S&S purchase and Conrad Black's book collection

I don’t know anyone who reads Canadian economist/author Stephen Leacock these days. I can’t remember anyone quoting him or invoking him in a speech. Margaret MacMillan wrote a good short book about him a decade ago in the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series, relating how humorists thought him an economist, and economists thought him a humorist, but since then he seems to have disappeared, except for the Canadian humor medal named for him—one given annually to a (rarely) humorous book.

It’s not the worst thing that we’ve paused on Leacock at this moment. His views would be problematic in the current environment: the empire was brilliant, the franchise was for men, Canada was Anglo-Saxon, and so on.

But if anyone is inclined to start reading Leacock, you can now get a whopping 10,367 pages of him for $2.99 on Kindle.

The publisher is Delphi Classics, a low-cost digital publishing company that specializes in producing the complete works of once-famous writers as low-cost yet attractive ebooks—they’re especially attractive when compared to most digital editions of public domain material (if you don’t care what the material looks like, you can find almost all of it for free on Project Gutenberg).

For about $75 US, Delphi will sell you one of its “super-sets.” A representative super-set includes the complete works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Louisa May Alcott, D. H. Lawrence, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells. Oscar Wilde, Elisabeth Gaskell, Edgar Allen Poe, Thomas Hardy, Sir Walter Scott, Virginia Woolf, and Anton Chekhov. By my count, that’s 166,000 pages of reading material (the equivalent of more than 500 volumes of 300 pages), which would last most people a lifetime.

Super-sets aren’t the way to go, however. I filled a virtual shopping cart with my own a la carte package of Delphi complete editions, aiming to compile for $30 US enough great literature to last the rest of my days. I succeeded, choosing Dickens, Trollope, Proust, Wharton, George Eliot, Balzac, Gibbon, Shakespeare, Twain, and Pepys. That’s 160,000 pages of first-rate literature for the price of one new hardcover novel.

Whatever else might be said of humanity, we’ve managed to bring the cost of access to a lifetime of great literature to under $30, or $100 if you also need a new Fire 7 tablet. That’s an achievement.

Welcome to the 101st edition of SHuSH, the weekly newsletter of Sutherland House Books. If you’re new here, hit the button—it’s free:

The Great Canadian Bookstore Map

If you live in Canada and want to quit buying books from Amazon but aren’t sure of your alternatives, try this map produced by Don Gorman, the Victoria-based publisher of Rocky Mountain Books. It’s a Google Map of independent booksellers that offer delivery or curbside pickup. It includes almost 300 bookstores and has been viewed over 400,000 times.

I don’t have time to figure out how to embed a Google map in substack (and I’m not sure if it can be done) so here’s the link and a picture of what you’ll be looking at when you click on it:

Latest on the Mega-Merger

I’ve spoken to several people close to talks between the government and independent publishers on whether or not it should approve the Canadian dimension of the Penguin Random House purchase of Simon & Schuster. (Our previous thoughts on this are here.)

It still does not appear that the government has decided what to do. It has received a letter from the independent publishers with suggestions as to what measures it could take, or what undertakings it could require of the merged firm. The publishers disagreed among themselves over what to include in the letter. The notion that Simon & Schuster divest itself of its Canadian authors apparently did not make the final cut (thank the lord). More successful was the suggestion that all sales of the merged entities’ sales in Canada go into a fund to somehow assist Canadian publishing.

The latter idea at least has the benefit of novelty but at first blush, it strikes me as weak. If the government imposes, say, a 3% levy on domestic sales of Penguin Random House Simon & Schuster books, the company will simply increase its prices by 3%. The first rule of corporate response to any intervention by a government is to pass the cost to consumers. That’s not good for consumers, or booksellers. It might not be good for independent publishers, either: if PRHS&S can take 3% more out of every Canadians’ book budget, less is left for everyone else.

In any event, I don’t see it happening. The most likely outcome remains to be that the government wait until both the UK (already done) and the US approve Penguin Random House’s purchase of Simon & Schuster and draft in behind, perhaps throwing another bucket of cash at the Canada Book Fund as a gesture of goodwill.

Guess who owns Stalin’s death mask?

Our friend Nigel Beale runs the Biblio File, which he describes “one of the world’s leading podcasts about ‘the book’ and an inquiry into the wider world of book culture.” His last two episodes have been great.

First up, a conversation with John Thompson, the author of Book Wars: The Digital Revolution in Publishing, which we mentioned several weeks ago.

The next is “Conrad Black on his book collections and book collecting.” It starts with Conrad quarreling with Nigel’s introduction of him before he details his 25,000 book library, including his collection of Napoleonic era first editions in English and French (including one priceless volume with a lock of Napoleon’s hair), his Franklin Roosevelt collection (with a volume signed by both FDR and Churchill), his Duplessis cigar box, ship models, and Nazi memorabilia.

Conrad, formerly rated Canada’s most admired businessman by the Globe & Mail, admits to having been hosed by savvy book dealers over the years.

And there’s this:

One thing about this kind of collecting, it is very subjective, and subject to whim. It just depends on what you come across and it’s funny what you wind up with… I have a copy of the death mask of Napoleon here, and a copy of the death mask of Stalin in England—his death mask and his hands, his small hands. They formerly belonged to Enoch Powell, if you remember him. There was a sale of Enoch’s effects, and I put in a bid just for fun, and nobody else had any interest in a death mask of Stalin so I got it for a hundred pounds or something. It doesn’t mean I’m an admirer of Stalin. I just thought it was an odd thing to have Enoch Powell’s death mask of Stalin.

As you’ll find if you visit Nigel’s home page, there’s an endless supply of good listening on the Biblio File.

Smells Like Teen Spirit

I’m not sure any rock star will ever produce a book as evocative and beautifully written as Patti Smith’s Just Kids but many are trying. Here are four in Patti’s vein whose authors, once famous young women, are now eligible for AARP membership.

Chrissie Hynde, the author of Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, spent a lot more time in the British punk scene than I had realized. Debbie Harry’s Face It: A Memoir, which got a lot of attention for her description of being raped at knifepoint, is also frank about her use of her physical appearance to gain fame, and interesting for her efforts to distance herself from disco. Kim Gordon, author of Girl in a Band: A Memoir and a member of Sonic Youth, describes her life as an all-around cool person.

The new release that got me thinking of this mini-genre is Rickie Lee Jones’ Last Chance Texaco: Chronicles of an American Troubadour. This paragraph confirms everything I’ve suspected about the personal hygiene of popular musicians:

When I was twenty-three years old I drove around L.A. with Tom Waits. We’d cruise along Highway 1 in his new 1963 Thunderbird. With my blonde hair flying out the window and both of us sweating in the summer sun, the alcohol seeped from our pores and the sex smell still soaked our clothes and our hair. We liked our smell. We did not bathe as often as we might have. We were in love and I for one was not interested in washing any of that off. By the end of summer we were exchanging song ideas. We were also exchanging something deeper. Each other.

I had trouble reconciling the dates in that paragraph. If Tom’s car was really a new 1963 Thunderbird, Rickie would have been about nine years old. It seems that the car was in fact a 1965 Thunderbird, new to Tom in the mid-seventies. More here if you’re interested.

Do we really want to cancel Ryerson?

An interesting article from the Dorchester Review:

It is thus fundamentally wrong to blame Egerton Ryerson for creating residential schools. It was the chief Kahkewaquonaby (Sacred Feathers), known as Peter Jones, working with other prominent Methodists, who argued that the government should fund schools to educate Indigenous men in the new techniques in agriculture, so that they might survive in a colony where land to hunt and fish freely was rapidly disappearing. It is too often ignored that Indigenous people themselves wanted government-funded schools. By 1842, the Canada West authorities accepted the concept, as a way to put First Nations on farms and to eliminate the expense of annual treaty payments, which is not the same thing as trying to assimilate them. Assimilation was a natural process that had been happening anyway for generations; no culture is static in a dynamic colonial setting where both sides embraced the idea of progress.

That’s not to deny the abuses that occurred at residential schools, or the racist elements of the residential schools program. It’s just to say that history is almost never as simple as we think.



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